Kidnapped in a Rio favela five years ago, Brazilian policewoman Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo turned the tables on her abductors and arrested them. Now, she is spearheading efforts to turn the slums around in time for the city to host the 2014 World Cup.
“We succeeded in turning a place feared by the population and tourists into one which today can be visited,” 34-year-old De Oliveira told AFP atop Providence Hill, which became the city’s first favela in the late 1800s.
Since her ordeal and courageous stand in arresting the favela gang that had held and beaten her, this military police officer has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks.
Invited in 2008 to head the first Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in Rio, she is now in charge of all 25 UPPs deployed throughout the 144 favelas as part of a campaign launched to wrest control back from the gangs.
Providence Hill, which was pacified by police in 2010, is now home to 5,500 people and the site of a state-of-the-art urbanization project that will include a gondola, a funicular tram, streetlights, and housing.
De Oliveira’s prominent role in trying to turn things around in Rio, which will also play host to the 2016 Olympics, has won her national and international acclaim.
In March, she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award in Washington by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with First Lady Michelle Obama looking on.
“My biggest achievement was to show that in Rio favelas, contrary to what police and most people thought, the majority of residents are good, hard-working people,” De Oliveira told AFP.
Commanding a UPP in Santa Marta from 2008 to 2010, she was in charge of 126 men.
She told AFP the most difficult thing was getting fearful residents to trust the police.
Santa Marta had been occupied by an elite battalion of the military police for nine months. But when it was pulled out in 1991, drug traffickers moved back in and killed many whom they viewed as police informants, she explained.
De Oliveira said that during her two years in Santa Marta, she battled drug barons, trained in conflict resolution and human rights, and worked with authorities to improve garbage collection and health services.
“In two years I never received a telephone complaint without knowing who was making the call. This is a great sign of trust, because the people who have been living there for 20, 30 years know the power of criminals and they did not know me,” she added.
Her biggest challenge today, she added, was “to show that police work to improve society” and “to debunk the myth that UPPs can resolve all problems.”
De Oliveira believes the units are meant to assert the state’s authority and pave the way for the provision of basic services and private investment.
“Through our work, we have to gain the trust of the community. But in some favelas, that will take time. When drug trafficking is carried out by residents of the community, it is more difficult. because people have ties with the criminals.”
Some 1.5 million people, or about 20 percent of Rio’s population of 6.5 million, currently live in the more than 750 slums that hug the verdant hillsides that ring the city.
The pacification units have significantly improved security in those favelas located close to the most popular tourist areas or near the airport or the Sambadrome, the venue for the sumptuous parades of the famed Rio Carnival.
But violence continues practically unabated in hundreds of communities in the city’s most impoverished areas.
One question De Oliveira is often asked is what will happen after the 2016 Summer Olympics?
Will the police units remain deployed in the favelas or will they be withdrawn, allowing the return of armed drug traffickers as happened in Santa Marta in 1991?
Asked about recent cases of police corruption within the UPPs and assertions by some favela residents that they fear the police more than the drug gangs, De Oliveira responded that there are rotten apples in “any profession” and they represent “a minority”.
In 2007, she was kidnapped for several hours by armed men as she left her house and taken to a favela.
“They beat me up non-stop. I thought I would never get out of there. I was in a part of the favela with no residents, with many armed men. I, a police officer, a woman, all alone. I got out with the help of God,” she said.
After several attempts, De Oliveira managed to escape and police captured some of her abductors. The next day she returned to arrest the others.
Instead of triggering a “panic syndrome” in her, the experience had the opposite effect.
“I could not stop working, I became a better person and realized that the people of the favela needed help,” she said.
For the past 11 years, she has been trying to reconcile her tough favela work with her law studies.
“I don’t have a husband, I don’t have children, not even a boyfriend, I don’t have time,” she said with a laugh.